25 Fascinating Metrics That Compare Education Around the World
Nelson Mandela once referred to education as “the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” So, it’s no wonder that countries across the globe focus on schooling for their next generation. But what does education look like exactly for kids in different countries? What are they doing in their classrooms? How do they play? And how often?
Here are 25 metrics that look at the differences and similarities between children’s educational experiences around the world.
School Starting Age
Let’s start at the beginning. Much research has been done about early childhood education, with some advocates supporting non-academic, i.e., play-based, education for children under seven years old.
Around the world, the vast majority of children who attend school start at the ages of five or six. Countries with the latest starting ages for children in primary school include Finland, Poland, the Russian Federation, Estonia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nambia and Mali.
While it’s typically believed that the more schooling and homework you complete, the more likely you are to graduate, but Finland is proving that theory wrong. As previously mentioned, the country delays the starting age for school to seven years old, and most schools here incorporate an hour and 15 minutes of recess each day. Finnish high school students are given less than three hours of homework per week. Their schools require only a few exams or grades — save for one big standardized test they take at the age of 16.
All this may sound like the Finns don’t take education seriously. And yet, Finnish students regularly earn top scores on science, reading and math in international tests. About 99 percent of students graduate from high school. And to top it all off, teaching in Finland is considered a highly respected profession on par with practicing medicine.
If homework is not an area where your child excels, then hopefully you don’t live in Shanghai, Russia or Singapore, countries where students spend the most amount of time on homework per week.
Averages include 13.8 hours weekly for students in Shanghai, 9.7 weekly homework hours for Russian teenagers and 9.4 hours weekly for Singaporean students, with other countries coming in at around six or seven hours. This data is based on the average time spent on homework for 15 year olds, as collected by the OECD.
No matter where you live, literacy is the backbone of education. Unsurprisingly, developed nations lead the world when it comes to literacy rates. Greenland tops the list, at 100 percent adult literacy.
The U.S., Canada, Australia and most of Europe enjoy literacy rates at or close to 99 percent. China, a quickly developing country, doesn’t lag far behind, at 95 percent. African countries, particularly those in the central part of the continent that have seen the highest numbers of recent conflicts, hold the lowest literacy rates.
South Africa: Great Strides in Literacy
South Africa, however, stands out as one country making significant strides in literacy in recent decades. Currently, 99 percent of girls and women and 98 percent of boys and men aged 15 to 24 in South Africa are literate. Compare these impressive number to the literacy rates of 68 percent of the female population and 78 percent of the male population aged 65 and older.
The story here: In post-apartheid South Africa, tremendous strides have been made in educating young people, both black and white.
Free Public Schooling (or Lack Thereof)
In the U.S. and many other developed countries, free public education is often taken for granted because that’s not the case everywhere. In Ghana, for instance, parents of elementary-aged students are expected to pay $87 per child per school year in fees — which is unattainable for many of the poorest families in a place where the median per capita income hovers around $2,000 annually.
In Cote d’Ivoire school fees are roughly $150 per year, and in El Salvador, they’re as high as $680 — putting even a basic education out of reach for many children.
The U.S. spends 5.62 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education and schooling, thus ranking No. 58 worldwide on spending in that category. Many European countries, like Denmark (8.74 percent), spend a higher percentage of their GDPs on education.
At the top end of the scale, we find the small African country of Lesotho (12.98 percent), followed by Cuba (12.86 percent) and the Marshall Islands (12.24 percent). At the lower end of the spectrum, we have French Polynesia (.52 percent), Equatorial Guinea (.6 percent) and Burma (.8 percent).
Schooling in Foreign Languages Negatively Impacts Test Scores
Apart from costs, another issue making it difficult for children to attain basic education is the fact that an unbelievable 40 percent of the global population does not have access to schooling in a language they understand, according to UNESCO’s 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report.
In Honduras, for example, 94 percent of sixth-grade students who spoke the language of instruction at home learned basic reading skills, compared to only 62 percent who did not speak the language achieving similar skill sets.
Most parents want their children to study a second language, and some go so far as to enroll in specialized bilingual programs. In the U.S., bilingual schools that incorporate Spanish, French or Mandarin along with English are growing in recognition and popularity.
But did you know that in the small European country of Luxembourg, teachers and students are expected to demonstrate proficiency in three languages? They are Letzeburgesch, which is used mainly for verbal communication, along with German and French — which are both used for written correspondence and official documents. Nearly 100 percent of the population in Luxembourg is trilingual.
Quality of Education Across the Globe
Taking international standardized tests is one of the only ways that researchers can compare the quality of education across the globe.
One paper, titled “Global Data Set on Education Quality,” collected data from 1965 to 2015 and found that average scores tended to be higher in richer countries like the United States, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Do you ever complain about the number of students in your kid’s classroom? Us, too. But have you also wondered about how that number compares to student-teacher ratios in other places? The Central African Republic tops this list from NationMaster at an average of 80 students per teacher, while students in the Republic of Georgia enjoy the lowest ratio of 6.26 students per teacher. (Note: The list includes the most recent information recorded per country, so years differ.)
Curious about how the U.S. compares? The national average is 14.29 students per teacher.
Photographer James Mollison visited 15 countries to document children playing during school recesses. He found extremely diverse conditions which he recorded in the book, "Playground." For instance, children in China participate in a regimented exercise program during recess that includes stretching and timed running; children in Norway enjoy free-reign of park-like areas where they build forts and climb trees; students in Japan are expected to help clean and tidy up their schools during recess; and children in Sierra Leone were photographed at play in what is essentially a garbage dump.
But also interesting is the amount of time students spend at recess or lunch. We already know that Finland seems to be ahead of the pack when it comes to giving students a break — or a 75-minute recess to be exact. In the U.S., students get an average of 27 minutes.
Length of the School Day
Many countries, including the U.S., trend toward a 6.5- to seven-hour school day. In China, children clock 9.5 hours at school daily, though their schedule includes a longer lunch break than most American schools provide.
The countries where kids spend the least number of hours per day in school (and where your kids will now want to move)? Finland, yet again, and Brazil, at an average of five hours per day.
In the U.S., summer break typically starts in the first week of June and ends in late August or early September. In Argentina, summer break goes from mid-December to the end of February or the beginning of March. And in India, summer vacations often start between the months of March and May, and kids head back to classes in June or July.
While summer break (no matter the month) is universally a time of joy for kids, there is quite a difference in how long those breaks might be. In the U.S., for instance, kids are required to be in school 180 days a year, while South Korea requires its kiddos to spend a whopping 220 days behind their desks.
Years of Compulsory Schooling
The number of years children are required to be in school also differs quite a lot by country. At 15 years of compulsory education, Ecuador tops the list. Mauritius, Venezuela and Uruguay are close behind, at 14 years. Sixteen countries, including the U.S., require 12 years of schooling, and many European countries fall in the 10- to 11-year range.
Meanwhile, six countries including Bhutan, Cambodia and Nepal have no compulsory education requirements.
Number of Years of Education by Gender
In the U.S., girls and women attend school for an average of 1.7 years longer than boys and men. Other countries where females have longer schooling periods include Barbados, Armenia, Brazil, Australia and the U.K.
On the other side of the spectrum, boys and men attend school for a longer period of time in Angola (5.3 years more), Afghanistan, Iraq and South Korea.
Happy Students Perform Better
A 2017 study in “Journal of Happiness Studies,” from Bite Science showed that, in general, happy kids perform better at school and vice versa. The Spanish study collected data from 104 children ages nine to 10 and 113 teenagers aged 15 to 16. The group was divided fairly evenly between boys and girls who all came from middle-class, socio-economic backgrounds.
While the younger children reported being happier and performing better at school (likely because there is less competition in classes of younger grades), friends and good grades were two of the strongest indicators of happiness and good grades for both age groups.
A darker stat involves in-school corporal punishment, which is prohibited in 128 countries but allowed in 69. Human Rights Watch monitors this area and issues stats about the prevalence and the nature of the physical punishments that students around the world endure.
For instance, in Egypt, a teacher can use a stick to hit a student for infractions of the rules, and in Jamaica, students report being struck with straps. Other forms of corporal discipline include being forced to sit in invisible chairs or stand in the sun for long periods.
World’s Best Universities
According to World University Rankings, seven of the top 10 universities in the world are in the U.S., including the California Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Harvard.
But the best university worldwide, ranked in 2016 by numerous individual performance indicators that include research, teaching and quality of the facility? The University of Oxford in England.
Density of Quality Higher Ed Institutions
The United States has the highest number of top-ranking universities in the world: 148, to be exact. Though it’s much smaller in size and population, the U.K. boasts no less than 91 top-rated institutions. Japan comes in third, at 69.
Brazil holds pace with both France and Spain — each of which features 27 world-class institutions of higher learning.
Enrollment in Primary School
So, how exactly has education changed over time? Two centuries ago, an astonishing 80 percent of the world population had not received any formal education, according to Our World in Data. That number has luckily declined with now less than 20 percent of the population having received no education at all.
Since 1970, enrollment in primary schools has increased significantly, with only 9 percent of primary-school-age children across the globe not attending school. The primary school completion rate has also increased from 74.24 percent in 1970 to 89.62 percent in 2016.
Enrollment in Secondary School
While primary schools still have higher rates of enrollment, likely due to the fact that the highest returns on education come from primary schooling, the number of children aged 15 to 17 who are not in school has significantly declined from 49 percent to 37 percent.
Overall Attendance in School
While the rates of attendance in both primary and secondary schools have increased significantly, in 2014, there were still 263 million children worldwide not attending school that should have been, according to UNESCO.
That includes 61 million children from the ages of six to 11, 60 million from 12 to 14 and 142 million from 15 to 17, with the starkest numbers reported from Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.
The United States has the highest number of homeschoolers, estimated at around 2 to 3 million. About 75 percent of homeschoolers in the U.S. have strong Christian beliefs that influence their decision to homeschool, and 80 percent of parents who were themselves homeschooled choose to homeschool their children.
In stark contrast, here are the following countries that outlaw homeschooling: Greenland, Cuba, Costa Rica, South Korea, Turkey, Albania, Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Serbia and Sweden.
The Future of Formal Education
While we’ve certainly made strides in schooling globally, there’s good news on the horizon for the future of education.
By 2050, it’s projected that only five countries — Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali and Niger — will have a rate of no education above 20 percent.